“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”
Sixty-nine years ago Friedrich von Hayek warned of the consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Three months later Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France to start the long slog to retake western Europe from the forces of National Socialism. We now live in a socialist dystopia that our ancestors who fought in that war would struggle to recognise; this is despite the overwhelming volume of philosophical and economic literature supporting the efficacy of libertarian economics and societies. While in many areas we have won the argument we have struggled to make any significant impact towards a truly free society anywhere in the world; various shades of statism occupy every country. So I have been thinking about why we have failed in our endeavour.
Winning The Argument
We libertarians are great at arguing exactly how the minutiae of a perfect libertarian society would work, from policing and courts with contract disputes, health care, welfare, drugs, and even national defence. While we may not agree on the ideal society, whether it would involve minarchy or anarchy, we damn well know how its mechanisms would work in detail!
So how do we get to our ideal free society, or just closer to the free society that we yearn for? Well as the old joke goes “you don’t want to start from here”. That punchline sums up the uphill struggle we have.
If we are ever to achieve our goal of a free society then we libertarians need to define a strategy for how to achieve this fundamental change.
Barriers To A Free Society
Let us start by considering the status quo:
- Public choice theory suggests that government will be influenced to legislate in favour of minorities who have more to gain from their subsidies, grants or anti-competitive levies than the sums charged in general taxation by the losers.
- The ‘ratchet effect’ of ever-increasing taxation and/or legislation by the state that needs to justify its increasing budget to meet election promises to its constituents. Few people complain when an additional penny disappears in taxes each month; but the benefit to the state is £700,000, which it will never give up. Reducing taxation requires fighting the many ‘good causes’ that are beneficiaries of this expenditure which can be politically uncomfortable (for example the recent discussions about disability benefits).
- The power structure unwilling to cede its authority, whether it is the civil service or professional politicians. These vested interests are paid from taxes taken from the populace, so are unlikely to want to reduce or forgo them. This can be seen by increasing salaries, expenses and index-linked pensions for many ‘public servants’.
- A large bloc of the electorate that is reliant on welfare payments, from unemployment benefits needed as government sucks the productive private-sector economy dry, to ‘tax-credits’, the Milton Friedman-inspired negative income tax, that distorts the market. (‘Tax credits’ enable employers to pay their workforces less directly, with the subsidies coming from the employees’ own taxes and corporation tax.)
- Democracy supports the status quo, for any who propose radical change cannot get established in the system.
- Global institutions that require their own funding though cannot levy their own taxes, such as the EU, UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, etc.
- The corruption of politics, not only tainting people of principle who have to join in with the tribal political games, but the actual corruption of lobbyists and expenses, as displayed in the last few years.
The state has become its own living, breathing, self-replicating entity. I am surprised that nobody has thought to apply James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to a theory of the state: it organises; it metabolises; it grows; it adapts; it breeds; and, most importantly, it responds to stimuli – it defends itself.
The humour of Yes Minister, where Sir Humphrey Appleby is happy to discuss reducing the size of the civil service, but wants a huge task force to study the subject, is far from fictional.
So this is the environment that we have to consider when contemplating any strategy for liberty.
How To Remove The State From Our Lives
So how can we make our ideal free society, how can we remove the state from our lives? Before you get your hopes up – I don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are various approaches that can be considered and I discuss some of them below.
- Entryism: infiltrating an existing political party with like-minded activists seems a quick win, as it enables the libertarian to leverage the existing democratic system and existing party apparatus. This was tried by the libertarians of FCS into the Conservative Party in the 1980s, with little success. There are also pockets of libertarians within other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (sic) and UK Independence Party. Sadly it quickly becomes apparent that the existing party power structure will not cede power easily, and often a reaction is provoked that ends any libertarian aspirations.
- A libertarian party: The example of the United States is sufficient here. David Nolan who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971 has now given up on this strategy. With only 16% of people holding libertarian beliefs (in the US, probably less in the UK) it is highly unlikely that this approach can ever succeed in isolation. In my personal view even participating in the democratic political system taints the politicians, whether libertarian or not, and no libertarian party will ever succeed (sorry Pro-Liberty Party).
- Education: I have for a long time been an advocate of utilising ‘think tanks’ and ‘folk activism’ to educate the general populace of the efficacy of the market and that they state is simply not needed. However after 70 years of post-war state education promoting Bevan’s cradle-to-grave statist strategy, people just don’t realise that they can live without the all-encompassing state. However, I still believe that we need to educate people, weaning them off the narcotic that is the modern state, as no other method of transition will work by itself.
- Revolution: Let’s not be silly! Revolution, even with the benevolent dictator model, is more likely to lead to despotism even faster than democracy does. As stated earlier, the state responds to stimuli: in the UK even discussing revolution is effectively illegal – a terrorist act under our legislation. The state defends itself first and foremost, hence the frequent proposal of laws with heavier sentences for cop-killers than for those that would kill us.
- Seasteading: Although this is still currently the realm of fiction this method of creating a new stateless society is at least theoretically achievable. The Seasteading Institute was founded by Patri Friedman (David’s son and Milton’s grandson) and has attracted many supporters and investors, including Peter Thiel.
- Free States: Jason Sorens proposed the idea of concentrating libertarians in one area to effect political change, thereby inspiring the Free State Project in the US. New Hampshire was nominated as the target state and so far over 1,000 libertarians have moved there; the goal is 20,000 This project is already showing returns, as can be seen in this recent article in Reason ‘The Free State Project Grows Up‘. However it needs an autonomous political entity to succeed, such as a US state that has control over much of its legislation, and it needs to be small enough for the incoming libertarians to win or influence democratic votes. Whilst it is an attractive idea for all UK libertarians to move to a county to establish a libertarian society, it is worthless
- Fabianism: The infiltration of the intelligentsia and associated ruling class by the Fabian movement proved successful for promoting socialist ideals. A similar libertarian-minded project given time could sway the body politic, though it is unlikely to be enough by itself.
- Do-It-Ourselves: This is my only contribution to the debate. Let’s stop whingeing about the state institutions running our lives badly, let’s create our own institutions and aim for David Friedman’s Market Anarchism. Many businesses already exist that provide the same, or better, services than the state. Let’s publicise these. And where they don’t exist let’s build our own. If we can demonstrate to the populace that private health, transport, social housing, welfare, education, policing and arbitration are more cost-effective than the state’s versions, then how long before consumers vote with their feet?
A Suggested Strategy
I’ve not got any single magic answer to how we get to our objective of a stateless, or near-stateless, society. Personally I think the Folk Activism approach is useful for gaining much-needed support through education, but it alone cannot succeed. Like many other libertarians I don’t think we will ever have sufficient support to use the democratic system in our favour. Whilst the seasteading is the most likely to create small viable libertarian communities at some point in the future I don’t think it’s a viable alternative for most of us. The Free State Project has the most likelihood to succeed to a limited extent, but only within the constraints that the US Federal government will allow it to.
The solution I think is most likely to create a libertarian society is to Do-It-Ourselves. We can only convince the non-libertarians that a society best functions without state interference by demonstrating that to them. We must build the non-state institutions we want to see, and proselytise about those that already exist, here or elsewhere. We must demonstrate each and every aspect of a free society and explain why this is better than the state alternative.
Now this sounds impossible I admit – but we don’t need to eat the elephant whole.
While the state may have a virtual monopoly in many areas, which gives it an inherent cost advantage as it’s funded by mandatory taxes, we can compete with it by innovating, using technology to our advantage by creating new business models. We can be agile and move faster than the cumbersome leviathan state.
Imagine if, for instance, you were to set up a business to offer videoconference access to GPs over the internet using qualified doctors in, say, India? What could you charge for that service on a pay-per-visit basis? I imagine that £10 per visit would cover the costs with a healthy profit margin. What happens when that model becomes successful and increasing numbers of customers prefer that to the NHS? The government would have to either outlaw it, with much public controversy and legal challenges, compete, which is unlikely, or exit the market. A libertarian goal could be achieved peacefully without resorting to democracy or the distorting power of the state. After all if the game is weighted in their favour let’s not play by their rules.
Evolution Not Revolution
The successes of the Free State Project have come at a slow pace. Jason Sorens said in the Reason article that the strategy was “rather than build a new society [Free Staters] opted for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes“. This has proved somewhat successful in that new ideas are proposed and implemented, then can be tested against the objectors’ worries, one step at a time; this incremental approach to liberty is slowly undoing the ratchet effect, educating the people that society can exist without the state’s constant interference. We need to make small incremental changes towards freedom, changes that are testable with demonstrable results. As Patri Friedman says “power has inertia” – we cannot move this leviathan quickly.
We know what we want a free society to look like, but I don’t think that we will get there unless we start planning how to do it. If we just keep proselytising then we may never get to a free society, we need to act.
So this is my challenge to libertarians: go build the new society that you want. If we can outcompete the state, which I believe that we can, then the state must wither and die. We know that the free market is better, in competition with the state we will win: this is natural selection in action.
I started writing this article based on a number of ideas I’d had for some time around our strategy for liberty. Whilst writing I came across a pertinent debate on Cato Unbound‘s website. An excellent essay by Patri Friedman called ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ provoked thoughtful response essays from Jason Sorens, Brian Doherty and Peter Thiel. If you’re interested in this topic then I strongly recommend you read them all.